Sense of Taste in Writing: The Hell of Hyperbole


For me, the most challenging sense in writing is the sense of taste, which is why I’ve left it for last. I love good food, interesting food, food from all over the world, but I am utterly challenged to explain what it is about a particular taste that captivates me. I think I am intimidated by professional food writers . . . in their constant bid to outdo each other they have descended into the Hell of Hyperbole where we are left wondering what the hell they are talking about. Thus my delight at finding the following description of the output of British caterers in a recent UK Guardian:

From “Wedding Season is Here: Crimes Against Food”

by Jay Rayner

“We are meant to be experiencing a British food revolution, and in many ways we are. There are better restaurants than ever before. But in the business of mass catering we are generally awful. I say generally. Obviously, if you run a catering firm and you’re limbering up to complain, I don’t mean you. You’re brilliant. Likewise, the food at your wedding was obviously fabulous. It’s everyone else.

“Everyone else is responsible for dry canapés that taste only of margarine and complacency. Everyone else is responsible for desiccated lumps of yesterday’s pre-cooked chicken the colour of an old stained sink; for sauces that could creosote fences and vegetables so overboiled you could suck them through a straw; for cream desserts that have split, and overbaked tarts with pastry like walnut shells. And the cost! I only use exclamation marks for shouting, which is what I’m doing. THE COST! Despite economies of scale, caterers charge more for this dismal crud than the price of a quality restaurant meal and rising. Why are they allowed to get away with it?”


I don’t think that anyone who has attended a catered wedding — on either side of the Atlantic — would fail to understand exactly what Mr. Rayner is talking about.  Applause, please.  SSH

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH


John Gardner on Storytellers

The prolific novelist John Gardner was also a great teacher and is one of my favorite writers on writing.  This quote from his On Becoming a Novelist, could just as easily apply to all tellers of stories, including memoiristsIn it he calls for a certain bodacious quality many aspiring memoirists could use.  Let us not be timid!


“Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, and an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.”

Photo by Shirley McKale

Photo by Shirley McKale

Sight: The Closely Observed Thing

For this ongoing series of the use of the senses in writing, I ran across this small paragraph in my forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden.  Just proof that, if you look at something long enough, it can turn into something else, something that can move a reader to see it in a fresh way.


The potted black begonia on the verandah is blooming. Its leaves feel like velvet, of a green so dark it is almost black, with red under-sides and fleshy, red-spotted stems. The blooms, at the ends of half-yard-long, almost translucent spears, emerge as fist-sized clusters of unspectacular rosy bivalve bracts that open to reveal minuscule yellow flowers. The whole plant, with a diameter of over 2 feet, seen from a distance, with its velvety black leaves and fleshy pink-tipped shoots sticking out all over, looks like something from another planet. I am finding that this sense of strangeness occurs with greater and greater frequency the more closely I observe a thing in Nature. The complexity, the variety, the sheer mechanics of how a thing is put together, the parts, the whole, the synchronicity with the other creatures around it, all astonish and amaze, as if I were a visitor exploring for the first time an alien sphere.

©2015, Sandra Shaw Homer

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager